Toronto, Canada – Lee Maracle is convinced she knows why the Canadian government rejects a national public inquiry into the alarmingly high number of missing and murdered aboriginal women and girls in Canada.
“There is no political will to investigate the deaths,” says the poet, activist and healer, and a member of the Sto indigenous community, in response to yet another aboriginal teenager being killed last month. “We are an ongoing vulnerable population – and that’s it.”
Sitting in her office at the University of Toronto’s First Nations House, Maracle, in a tie-dye green knit top, stares through her glasses as she discusses the lack of economic development, education gaps, and continuing exclusion that the native community faces.
“This is our country and we are not entitled to it. This is the nature of colonisation.”
The reality of colonisation for indigenous people around the world was addressed on Monday at the first World Conference on Indigenous Peoples at the United Nations’ headquarters in New York City.
Two reports released this summer support Maracle’s assessment. The first, a UN Report of the Special Rapporteur on the rights of indigenous peoples states that there is a “continuing crisis” and that “despite positive steps, daunting challenges remain”. The second, a Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) report on Missing and Murdered Aboriginal Women shocked even native activists by revealing eye-opening statistics: close to 1,200 murdered and missing native women and girls over the past 30 years.
Compared to statistics for non-aboriginal women and girls, the report confirms that aboriginals are a highly vulnerable demographic.
Murder rates disproportionately high
Take the August 17 case of Tina Fontaine. The 15-year-old’s body, wrapped in a bag, was pulled out of the Red River in the city of Winnipeg. She had “definitely been exploited and taken advantage of and murdered”, according to police.
|UN criticises Canada for treatment of aboriginal people|
Fontaine’s killing returned attention to the long-sought-after inquiry. The murder galvanised many of Canada’s 1.4 million aboriginal people to participate in candlelight vigils and protests, demanding to understand why more than 16 percent of homicide victims in Canada between 1980 and 2012 were aboriginal women, given they only make up 4.3 percent of the population.
A meaningful inquiry would help connect the dots between Canada’s historical treatment of its native population and current conditions, said Michele Audette, president of the Native Women’s Association of Canada.
Between 1874 and 1996, a period known as the Residential Schools Era, some 150,000 children were taken – usually forcibly – from their homes to state-run schools with the express purpose of aggressively assimilating them into white Canadian culture. They were made to speak English, become Christian, eat Western food, and dress in Western clothing, alienating them from their families, their roots and their culture, according to They Came for the Children, a report by Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), set up to address past grievances.
The TRC is expected to release its final report in June 2015. Of the thousands of students who suffered physical and sexual abuse, 89,000 survive today, but not all did. In January 2014, the commission reported that some 4,000 children died while in residential schools.
There was also the “Sixties Scoop”, in which aboriginal children were adopted into non-aboriginal families in order to assimilate them. “[These programmes] had a major impact on the family circle, that’s for sure,” says Audette. “The aboriginal issue is beyond the mandate of one political party or a five-year term. The impact is long, long, long term.”
Tina Fontaine’s story is part of this repetitive narrative. After her mother became an alcoholic, her father left her with his sister in Sagkeeng First Nation in Manitoba province. Fontaine was 12 when her father was beaten to death. Relatives say she was deeply scarred and ran away from home many times. Only this time, she didn’t come back.
Aboriginal leaders want to know why their community is marginalised in a country that prides itself on being a multicultural haven with one of world’s highest standards of living. Toronto and Vancouver have consistently made it on lists of the world’s top 10 best cities to live in.
“If we are a country that really believes that diversity and inclusion are part of our flag that we wave so proudly … we should have the courage to stand up for the women and the girls in our own backyard,” said Gabrielle Scrimshaw, president of the Aboriginal Professional Association of Canada, on a CBC news programme recently.
Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper recently said he didn’t want a national public inquiry, arguing the killings are “crimes”, and not suggestive of a “sociological phenomenon”.
“Mr Harper doesn’t want an inquiry for a number of reasons,” said Bob Rae, a former premier of Ontario and a lawyer. “He doesn’t want to cause problems for any of the institutions that will be affected by an inquiry, including the police.”
‘The current dialogue is broken’
About 40 inquiries of various scopes have already been carried out. Recommendations for increased funding for public services are aplenty. Some of the inquiries have resulted in small policy changes, such as introducing an aboriginal curriculum in Manitoba and, soon, in Saskatchewan. Many, however, see the Harper administration as hostile.
“The current dialogue is broken,” says Audette. “We tried, we pushed, we lobbied, we signed petitions, tried all kinds of approaches, but it’s always the same answer: that they do so much for us.”
When I went to residential school, I became a bad person. I was traumatised because of being physically abused, humiliated, dehumanised, shamed. And because of experiencing that at a young age, I carried those teachings as I grew up.
There is the challenge of numbers. “They’re a real minority in our society,” laments Rae. “The census shows that at most 1.5 million that can be called aboriginal, or who claim aboriginal status, and that’s out of a population of 35 million. So you’ve got governments that don’t really feel that they have [a] big political stake in doing very much, and that’s the real problem.”
What’s emerging from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, however, suggests that Canada’s prime minister is sidestepping the real issue. After all, half the aboriginal population is living on reservations where overcrowding, poor education facilities, high infant mortality rates and domestic violence are endemic.
Residential school horrors
Elder Andrew Wesley’s story was one of hundreds told at the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Wesley came from the trap lands near Fort Albany in Ontario, from a family of hunters.
“When I lived in the trap land with my family, I was a good person,” says Wesley, 69, now an Anglican priest who works with the homeless at Toronto Council Native Fire Culture Centre. “When I went to residential school, I became a bad person. I was traumatised because of being physically abused, humiliated, dehumanised, shamed. And because of experiencing that at a young age, I carried those teachings as I grew up.”
Wesley’s harsh indoctrination at his Roman Catholic residential school began with his first dinner of shepherd’s pie. “I had never eaten corn in my life, and after I ate it, I vomited.” He said the child-care worker stood over him, screamed and made him eat his vomit off the floor. When he vomited again, she made him eat that too.
“That’s only one part of the abuse I endured,” says Wesley quietly, adding many of the thousands of children who went to residential schools, or were part of the Sixties Scoop, ended up taking it out on their families.
Others suffered as well. For years, Audette’s babysitter, a product of the residential schools, sexually abused her. “The community as a whole suffered as a result of the residential school era, and we are still living with its impact,” she says. Her cousins, who were also sexually abused, committed suicide.
Today, aboriginal children are taken into foster care at about eight times the rate of non-aboriginal children. Twenty-five percent of male prison inmates are aboriginal, as well as 33 percent of female prisoners, according to the UN report.
“The notion somehow that you’re not supposed to look at causes or systemic issues is frankly ridiculous,” says Rae. The inquiry, he says, is important. But what is also needed is a “real, deep dialogue between the institutions of government and the First Nations leaders about what is going on and what more can be done”.
Follow Sonya Fatah on Twitter: @sonyafatah